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‘When the bough breaks’ Building a plan to improve Indian foster care services

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Editors’ note: The first installment of this series looked at the current, mainstream foster care system and some of the complications of making it work for Indian families. The second described the importance of “kinship care” in Indian families. This article is the series’ third and final installment.

Indian leaders and organizations are organizing and supporting reforms for Indian foster children.

In central Oregon, on the Warm Springs reservation, lives retired tribal court judge Lola Sohappy. Sohappy’s career began when she was a tribal jailer/matron in 1966; she became a foster care counselor in 1976, and eventually moved to the court as a juvenile court judge in 1985 until her retirement in 2005. She has five birth children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She reflected on the tribe’s child welfare program and the differences over the years.

“When I first started working back in the late ’60s, our tribal program was fully tribal-funded; and so we could do our own foster care requirements and our own certifying. And we followed the state guidelines with some of our own adaptations. We were tribally funded, so we could rely on kinship: and a lot of it was kinship. And we could provide that family setting with family and pay them foster care without any problems and it worked,” Sohappy said.

Kinship care is defined as a custodial living arrangement with a relative or close family friend. American Indians have a long-standing tradition of kinship care and it is considered a time-honored family response to crisis.

“Now, later on, when they changed to state funding because the tribe wasn’t able to fully fund it anymore, it really changed. We were required to follow the state guidelines and they’re so stringent. And that’s when tribes have to make a tough choice – whether to apply for state or federal funds and face non-Indian foster care standards that are not well-suited to the community, or ask families to care for children without any financial support.

“So that’s the biggest change I see: the downside of state funding. The requirements. And there are grandparents that want to raise children, and they are [doing so], but there’s nothing for them or there’s not enough for them to really provide the kind of care they would like to provide for these children.

“They now have to go through background checks and a lot of our people – you know, they have lived a tough life and they may have something in their background that prevents them from being a foster parent, and they know that. They know that; and now, they won’t even try. And so our children are ending up in non-Indian homes a lot of times because family isn’t qualified to be foster parents for some reason,” Sohappy said.

An example: Background checks for potential foster care and adoptive parents are important, but in some states a “driving under the influence” conviction from more than five years ago could potentially exclude a person from becoming a foster parent, despite a present-day commitment and proof that he or she is living a clean and sober lifestyle.

Turning this situation around is not simply a matter of funding. From the perspective of a tribal elder, Sohappy said: “Well, obviously money isn’t the whole answer. It has to be an all-around effort. I’ve always told my tribal people that one program can’t meet the needs of anything. We all have to be working together to take care of the children, take care of the parents and their problems, to make sure that they can get what they need in order to be good parents; there has to be enough workers and enough worker’s time to meet those needs – alcohol programs, education programs. You know, we all have a part in this; and it just seems like that’s where we fall short is that we’re not all working together, really together, for the needs of children and their families.”

In Indian country, the journey to obtaining sufficient resources and funding for our foster care families is most often led by our elected tribal leaders and child welfare advocates. Beginning in 2005, The National Indian Child Welfare Association had the task of presenting the Pew Commission’s agenda to tribal leaders and assisting them in understanding what the recommendations could mean for Indian communities.

During the United Southern and Eastern Tribes meeting last October, USET passed Resolution No. 2006016, “Foster Care Recommendations to Directly Fund Tribal Governments in Child Welfare Programs,” supporting the Pew Commission’s recommendations that tribes should be allowed to access federal funding for child welfare needs.

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USET is an intertribal organization that collectively represents its member tribes at the regional and national level. It has 24 federally recognized tribes in its membership that operate through various workgroups and committees and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and information among tribes, agencies and governments.

Shortly after the USET resolution, at the 2005 annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians in Tulsa, Okla., a similar resolution presented by NICWA was passed by the tribal leaders and they adopted the Pew Commission’s recommendations. NCAI currently has 274 member tribes who hear proposed resolutions.

Newly-elected NCAI president, Gov. Joe Garcia, commented on the connections Indians leaders have with Indian child welfare issues.

“I think the personal connection is just the passion for ensuring the health and safety for our children. The professional connection is from an education perspective. But the actions that we take when we say something is a priority, I think it doesn’t go hand in hand with what we’re saying. It’s our priority, but what we do is something different so I think that probably the education has to be that our children have to be in safe hands.

“They have to be healthy, they have to be safe.

“So from that perspective I think it’s important that tribal leaders become more involved supporting that. But here’s the dilemma: when it comes to social issues in most of the communities, these issues are private. They aren’t known by the public, and so aren’t known by the tribal leaders.

“I think that we really have to know a lot more than what we do know, but people have got to have the passion to learn about it,” Garcia said.

NICWA offers public policy information including descriptions and analysis of legislation, ideas for improving implementation of existing policies, and Indian child welfare related research reports available at its Web site, Specific questions about these issues can be directed to David Simmons, NICWA director of government affairs and advocacy: (503) 222-4044, ext. 119.

The people who will protect our children are all around us: parents, advocates, caregivers and, finally, the leaders of our communities. We need only be concerned enough to be informed and ready to step forward when the opportunity to make valuable progress is there. And while Indian children will continue to be placed by state agencies, securing the resources to strengthen tribal programs will ensure a better future for these children and their families.

Addendum: In the first article of this series, the Child Welfare League of America was identified as one of the agencies that was involved in the Indian Adoption Project during the 1950s. In 2001 the executive director of the CWLA, Shay Bilchik, apologized for his organization’s involvement in the adoption of Indian children and the impact this has had on generations of American Indian people. In addition, the CWLA made a commitment to further support tribal governments and Indian organizations in their efforts to improve services and funding for Indian children.

David Simmons is the director of Government Affairs and Policy at the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Kristy Alberty is NICWA’s executive communications manager.